The Dexter Effect – How to use your inner ‘Psycho’ to write better – The Crafting Characters Series #5

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My aim here, is to see if I can convince you to get up close and personal with your own inner psycho…

Have you ever watched Dexter? If you haven’t, you should. It’s great, Wiki says:

Dexter is an American television drama series. Set in Miami, the series centers on Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a blood spatter pattern analyst for Miami Metro Police Department who also leads a secret life as a serial killer, hunting down criminals who have slipped through the cracks of the justice system.’ 

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A rubbish blurb if you ask me it doesn’t give half the detail of Dexter’s utter brilliance. Dexter is a psychopath. Not a sociopath as lots of people would lead you to believe. Sociopathy has a biological element, i.e. you are born like it. Dexter witnessed the murder of his mother as a wee laddie and it scarred him into emotional apathy hence, he developed psychopathy.

The interesting thing with Dexter is that although he can’t quite feel emotion, he wants to. He doesn’t want to kill people, he wants to be good and a nice person, but his ‘dark passenger’ doesn’t let him, he gets these urges to kill, so his adoptive father teaches him how to kill and get away with it, but he is only allowed to kill people that adhere to the ‘code’ i.e. a very bad person who escaped from the police.

What does this have to do with your own personal inner psycho, and more to the point, why can it make you a better writer?

Well, the writers of Dexter literally torture him, and torture us by torturing him. Throughout the 8 seasons, Dexter teases us with ‘almost emotions.’ For example, Dexter gets a girlfriend and eventual wife (Rita) who fully believes that Dexter is in love with her, so much so they have a child together. What is magical about this series and why I am writing this, is the extraordinary juxtaposition this creates: Dexter’s is unable to feel emotion, yet he strives for a normal life and indeed grows fond of Rita, and their son Harrison who he would protect with his life.

The lesson I have learnt from Dexter is just how important it is to torture your characters, and in every way possible. If you torture your characters your viewers or readers feel even more for them. I felt tortured with Dexter as I watched.

Emotional Torture:

Dexter is put under some extremely emotional torture throughout the series. For example, he tries to live a normal life, and have disguise – which involves Rita, but actually, he ends up being extremely fond of her, and they get married and have a child. We watch as he wrestles with himself and his own inner turmoil trying to work out if he does actually feel anything, whilst knowing he wants to spend time with them and be with them, not something he is used to. So when we see Dexter finally attain what he has been striving for – some semblance of normality and a sense of love. It is ripped away as Rita is brutally murdered which = Dexter emotionally tortured. Utter brilliance. I cried, a lot.

But the important lesson here is he was tortured. I felt for him, and as a result it gave him a ton of depth as a character. Here are the main ways Dexter was tortured, and the elements I think you should include in your stories to help readers feel for your characters:

Mental Torture:

Dexter constantly has to hide who he is, his murders and all the shenanigans he is up to. In one of the series there is another killer ‘The Ice Truck Killer’ who threatens to expose his whole life, he works out who he is – his real brother who he was separated from as a child, and this brother dates his adoptive sister. The torture Dexter has to go through juggling all the balls and trying to prevent his sister from being murdered leaves him exhausted, exposed and vulnerable, and quite frankly, me on the edge of my seat.

Physical Torture: 

Not always appropriate granted it will depend on your novel, BUT, there are some things you could do – say for example you are writing a chick flick book you can still physically torture your character. If they had a long journey to take, you could make it physically demanding, put obstacles in the way, make it exhausting for them. Dexter was beaten and tortured on a number of occasions through out the show, every occasion only serving to make us feel even more sorry for him, but then it was appropriate to the show and also kind of karma for him. The interesting thing is, despite the number of murders he had committed we empathise with him and completely excuse his murderous behaviour, quite worrying really!

Moral Torture: 

This was perhaps on a par with emotional torture for being the best method to get me on the edge of my seat. Despite being a psychopath and a killer, Dexter had morals. And lots of them. He lived his life strictly by ‘the code’ which his dad gave him. He would only kill certain people if they met the code, but throughout the series we watch as people who don’t match the code push him, and threaten to expose him, making him test his morals and everything he believes in, because if he went against his code then he would just be some common murderer. It’s his moral code that makes him interesting and unique, and what drives the viewer to see what he will do, how far does he have to be pushed before he will break his code? Who would he break the code for?

It’s a fascinating case study and if you haven’t watched it, honestly you should. But what’s the point I am actually trying to make?

Torture your characters… Get up close and personal with your own inner bit of psycho in order to create strange and nasty methods for torturing your characters, it will only serve to make us readers turn every page until the book is finished. Use the types of torture above, obviously you don’t need to use them all, and obviously not all at once, or  not even all in the same story. In fact it is probably better not to. But do use some of them. Push your characters to their limits, make them have to work hard for their goals and it naturally brings their character to life, gives them layers, texture and grit and importantly creates something the readers to enjoy.

My question to you is:

What’s your inner psychos preferred method of torture?

I think my psychos preference is for moral and emotional torture, I love a bit of moral torture to really test your characters fibre. How far can you push them before its too far?  Can you crush them? How far is too far? What would make them break? My inner psycho is going nuts thinking about how I can torture my characters next, and also about timing it just right, right when they think they are plain sailing… boom!

I would love to hear from you…What’s your inner psychos preferred method of torture?

21 comments

    1. Oh my gosh, then you absolutely need to watch it. Its a fantastic series – little slow in one season, but really great, especially given your genre. Thanks for saying you liked the post, means a lot to me 🙂 🙂

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  1. I really enjoyed the first two seasons of Dexter but stopped watching during season three when I felt it lost it’s way a little. The real strength of the series up to that point was the way the writers turned Dexter into someone you felt empathetic towards as he tried to overcome his nature, only to remind you in the starkest way possible that the person you were rooting for was a psychopath. A great lesson on how to create an anti-hero.
    I think psychological torture (whether emotional or moral) is much more effective than physical torture in building well-rounded characters. While it’s fun (in a sadistic sense) to put your characters in physical danger, it often reveals little about their inner self. However, add a psychological or moral dilemma into the mix and suddenly you have a great insight into what makes the character tick.

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    1. Thanks for reading Dylan, and for the comments. The middle seasons of Dexter were a bit slow I will give you that, but it definitely picked up again :D. I completely agree though, it is bizarre how you can feel for a psychopath! Oddly enough, that book I recommended you, the Disturbed girl does the same thing. I am glad you are saying moral and emotional torture is the way forward! makes me feel better I am choosing the things that have the greatest effect. I think physical torture is just like an added bit of icing you know? You need the emotional and moral to give you the cake, the bit you need in character development and you can choose whether you want icing or not… ok its late I’m clearly a blathering idiot now!

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  2. I’m not big on physical violence in my writing so it would be psychological. The fantastic Breaking Bad has the ultimate anti hero in Walter White who you root for until very near the end of series three and then you want to know what will bring him down. I’ve not seen Dexter at all to know but I can guess similar techniques are used.

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  3. I live in Medieval Idaho where the only thing streaming even close to my house is the Pack River. I’m pop-culture, cable-tv and Hulu-deprived. I’ve heard about Dexter and often wondered why a show about a serial killer would be interesting. Ah, now I know. Great introduction to your topic. Character torture is the basis of tension and I appreciate how you’ve broken it down!

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    1. Thanks Charli 🙂 I am still learning so much about writing and character development. I try not to make my posts preachy but more lessons I’ve learnt so I guess it’s an insight to my head!

      Wait, so do you have broadband though right?? You must have the Internet? TELL ME YOU HAVE THE INTERNET?!?!?! I’m freaking out on your part at the thought of no internet. Ok I’m messing but wow no cable?! I don’t really watch TV not unless it’s a series and then I sit and watch the whole thing but never just TV but I don’t think I could live without the net 😥

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      1. When people joke about having dial-up, as if that’s the worst connection have, I can say I now have the worst product available — it’s satellite internet and we are allotted 10GB a month. There is no such thing as streaming! I can web browse… 😛

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    2. God, I feel so bad for you. I’ve totally been there.

      If you buy some flash drives (via Amazon wish list) and give me show names, I can download them and send them to you. Especially Game of Thrones.

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  4. I really enjoyed Dexter although it’s not something I would normally watch. Thanks for deconstructing it in such a way that makes so much sense. I might go back and watch the rest after the whole Debs shooting someone I didn’t expect her to which made me think the writers had lost their way too much. I was worried I’d end up in another LOST. Literally, lost hours and hours of my life. That was utter torture.

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    1. You are more than welcome 😄 I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I did love Dexter – have to say though I wasn’t sure about the ending but I think that was more my issue than the quality of it. Oooh I’ve heard terrible things about lost. I am definitely not going to attempt it then!! 😜

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  5. I had to laugh at this a little because that is what I am presently doing this in a short story and having fun with it. The problem is my inner “me” wants to interject humor and lighten it up some. Great post.

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  6. A lot of my characters are or have been emotionally or psychologically tortured. I usually stay away from the physical.

    Tell me what’s okay to read here if I want to watch the show. It started with some spoilers so I quit reading. Is the end of your post safe? 😉

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